Usability and the Great Firewall

October 19, 2018

Most reporting treats the Great Firewall of China as a political/censorship tool. That's one way to look at it, but it's a pretty limited one, that ignores some fundamental realities of human behavior.

The missing concept: usability.

Usability is how you win in software. In the broadest possible sense, it means making something people can use.

It means ensuring the product's buttons, or flows, are laid out in a way that "makes sense", no matter the user's background. And ensuring it's consistent, even though the product is developed by an entire team of people, at many locations, over a period of years.

It means ensuring someone from any culture can use it, even though everyone speaks a different language. And be careful with color, because what means warning or danger in one culture (red) might mean power, good luck, or fortune in another (China).

Most important for our purposes, it means the thing is reliable, and fast, even on some slow one-bar 2G network, on a device so old it may as well be powered by coal. Doubly so in countries where income levels aren't high enough to buy a new iPhone every year.

I have a sense the more realistic members of the Chinese Communist Party know they're fighting a losing battle; their goal today isn't absolute control of the flow of information. It's just not realistic, in 2018, to stop every single radio transmission, SD card, and paper book from entering or leaving the country.

But it doesn't matter. If Google products are slow, domestic equivalents will prevail. WeChat rather than facebook; Baidu rather than Google; Alibaba rather than Amazon.

Even if the goal is straight-up censorship, fewer links will be shared to Western media because they won't load correctly. Nobody wants to stare at a webpage or mobile app that "doesn't work" because half the graphics are missing.

The fact is, little things like this really tilt the board in the competitive world of software. Google obsesses over milliseconds. Making something even a little bit slower or harder to use can wipe a competitor off the map, especially when strong network effects only reinforce the advantage conferred by government policy. I saw thousands of people on the subway this week in Beijing with their phones out; not once did I see Google, Youtube, Twitter, or facebook. Eric Schmidt's "two Internets" prediction seems like a smart-money bet; if none of your friends are on facebook, would you be using it?

I wouldn't.

I'm sure there is a political agenda behind the Great Firewall. But it's also naked protectionism, where the government is picking winners and losers. Governments and firms outside of China, who compete in a more open market, are right to be upset at the Chinese government's barring access to their domestic market.

It's no different than blocking imports of corn, or rice. The WTO should call this what it is and put it to a stop.